Despite the possibility of isolated violence and other problems, close watchers of Iraq’s upcoming provincial elections say that a relatively smooth process there could be a bellwether for better days ahead, according to a new report [.pdf].
"Whereas the January 2005 elections helped put Iraq on the path to all out civil war, these polls could represent another, far more peaceful turning point," said the report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) released Tuesday.
The report postulates that at least some of the wrangling of the two-year sectarian war (05-2007) has now been put aside in hopes of nationalism and good governance.
The most poignant example of this is Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has effectively reached out, made concessions, and won important military victories in the past year.
That said, it is unclear whether any of the ruling parties will hold onto power or not and the uncertainty of Western observers is probably a good sign that processes are being formed where Iraqis are making their own choices about government.
"The elections inevitably will have severe shortcomings," said the ICG report. "Yet even an imperfect outcome is bound to begin to redress some of the most severe problems associated with the 2005 elections from corruption and mismanagement to the enormous political imbalances generated by the boycott of Sunni Arabs and many followers of Moqtada al-Sadr."
The start of that "redress" is especially well-timed with U.S. President Barack Obama coming to power. Obama campaigned on ending combat operations in Iraq and "responsible withdrawal" of many of the U.S.’ 140,000 troops there.
"[The provincial elections will] help shape the contours of Iraq’s future politics as the Obama administration begins to redeploy troops from the country," said a second report called "The Fractured Shia of Iraq" [.pdf] released by the Center for American Progress (CAP).
In its recommendations to U.S. policymakers, the CAP report suggests that Iraqi ownership of the process is of great importance by recognizing that Iraqis’ ability to "sort out their politics on their own terms," though it may come with some fraud and even violence, is essential.
"[The U.S.] troop presence continues to artificially shape Iraq’s power balances," said the report, noting the potential for a "disconnect" between priorities of "security" and "sustainable governance."
Though these are provincial elections set up by a law passed last February, as the first elections since 2005, they are likely to shed a great deal of light on both political progress toward reconciliation and what is to come in the next parliamentary contest later this year or early next year.
"It’s been over three years since the last elections in Iraq and the political landscape has changed dramatically. With the emergence of the Sahwa in the Sunni areas and the constantly changing fortunes of the main Shia parties, the provincial elections represent the first concrete evidence of the state of politics in Iraq today," Jason Gluck, a rule of law adviser at the congressionally funded U.S. Institute of Peace, told IPS.
Early voting is already taking place, and by the end of Jan. 31 the electorate will choose the makeup of provincial councils in 14 of 18 governorates.
The re-forming of those councils is important in several ways. For example, inclusion that was missing from the last round due to the boycotts will likely be corrected. The Sunni establishment, having, for the most part, cast away broad support for the insurgency with the formation of the Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, will be looking to cash in its compromises for a seat at the table.
Another benefit will be a clear mandate from last February’s election law, which, though it may not help ease corruption that has been rampant in the councils, may help to give gravitas to local bodies of governance.
In the confusion and violence following the fall of Saddam Hussein, and the building of these institutions from the ground up since then, many of the proposed roles for the provincial councils went unfulfilled. The councils "often felt toothless," said the ICG report, because they were given little meaningful authority and deprived of capabilities like revenue collection to build themselves up.
But all the problems with the nearly four years of dysfunctional councils may also end up hampering the effort to bring legitimacy through turnout those disillusioned with the governance of the inept councils may hold out and prevent a majority of the electorate from having their say.
In fact, it was similar disillusionment that caused the downfall of the last round of elections. The utter lack of any sort of governance or political system in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s fall from power caused people to appeal to religious authorities for voting instructions.
This voting on sectarian lines or in the case of some Sadrists and Sunni Arabs, not voting at all hardened the fracturing of society and perhaps contributed to the descent into all out sectarian war that has characterized much of the past several years in Iraq.
But having those religious and sectarian parties and politicians in power may provide a boon to the nascent democratic process in Iraq.
"Having experienced the failure of outgoing councils to deliver basic services," said the ICG report, "voters have grown disaffected by with both the religious parties and the clerics that sponsored them."
This prevailing disappointment with the outcomes of the 2005 election have forced both ruling parties and challengers to retool their messages in what has been a promisingly high level and intensity of campaigning.
"Facing an electorate disillusioned by mismanagement and corruption, the ruling parties have been forced to adapt," said the report. "They are hoisting the banner of patriotism, clean politics, and effective service delivery."
Furthermore, the pitfalls of the existing parties could force voters into the hands of fresh candidates that could reinvigorate Iraqi politics.
"[V]oters appear willing to gamble on new faces to replace those who, accusations notwithstanding, have at least gained valuable job experience," said the ICG report, noting something of a strange win-win for Iraqis.
"[T]he current experiment in democracy holds promise," concluded the ICG report’s executive summary. "A new generation of politicians, born through grassroots support in the electoral process and bred in councils given new prerogatives, may start to graduate to national office if not as soon as parliamentary elections that tentatively scheduled for late 2009, then surely in four years’ time and onward."
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